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Exploring the Heart of Restoration

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Stan Granberg

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By Stanley E. Granberg

December 19, 2021

The review in this article is in regular text. My personal reflections are provided in italics.

“What will be the future Churches of Christ?” This is the question Jack R. Reese considers in his book At the Blue Hole: Elegy for a Church on the Edge (Eerdmans, 2021), More starkly, the question Reese asks is, “Do these churches have a future (p. 42)?”

I was a bit shocked to discover at Harding University in 1974 that I had grown up in a mission field. I was born in Seattle where my first church experience was at one of the oldest Churches of Christ in the region, the Northwest Church of Christ. My experience of our fellowship was of smaller churches, mostly below 100 attenders, but they were vibrant and active. By the time I left for Harding University in 1974 a good number of congregations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho had grown to attendances of 200, 300, and even 400 people. The spiritual dynamic was strong, and the future was one of growth.

Reese writes At the Blue Hole as a hopeful, honest retrospective of the Churches of Christ as a movement. Today, many individual congregations are facing the question of their future. They look back wistfully at a golden age in their life, often in the 1980s and perhaps the 1990s, when their congregation was full of families and displayed a dynamic congregational life. But today, they are facing their mortality as they see an apparently unstoppable decline in attendance and the graying of their remaining members.

Reese also takes a wistful look back, only at the level of Churches of Christ as a movement. This is a perspective few church leaders have the breadth of experience or abilities to do. Reese draws from his personal experience of ministry in local congregations and as a professor at Abilene Christian University to give us the gift of this bird’s eye view of the movement that birthed and sustains our congregations today. The parallel he infers is that the health and vitality of the movement at large both reflects and portends the health and vitality of our individual congregations. So goes the movement, so goes your congregation.

I moved back to the Pacific Northwest in 1996 to teach Bible at Cascade College in Portland, OR. Cascade was one of the handful of small schools in our fellowship, existing as an outpost at the geographic fringe of our range of congregational distribution in the U.S. By 2003, through research I had students do on the growth/decline of their home churches and my personal observations, signs of a definite decline in our fellowship were evident. Cascade College closed in 2006, unable to find the finances or the students necessary to support it from a declining regional fellowship.

Our Current State

Reese sets the stage of Blue Hole with a look at the current state of Churches of Christ. Our movement has been in a slow decline since at least 1990. Using work that Stanley Granberg (myself) and Tim Woodroof did that extrapolated existing trends into the future, our membership could decline from 1.1 million today to barely 250,000 in 2050. Congregations will reflect a similar decline, dropping from 12,237 in 2016 to about 2,800 in 2050. Reese’s conclusion from our research and his observations is that, as an influential movement, Churches of Christ are dying. To be clear, no matter what Churches of Christ do, they will not likely recover their former stature or prestige. . . If our churches keep doing what most of them are now doing, they are going to die (pp. 47-48).” This is the “edge” for which Reese prepares a elegy for Churches of Christ.

The heart of Blue Hole is Reese’s belief that Churches of Christ possess hidden, forgotten resources that we can draw upon to reset our current trajectory. He finds these resources in the stories of our shared family history.

Reese explores numerous stories out of our history that include personalities like “Raccoon” John Smith, James Garfield, Samuel Robert Cassius, Silena Moore Holman, and Walter Scott. But he dwells on three stories that he thinks reflects three significant turning points where our fellowship made a decision to choose one road and leave another behind.

I agree with Reese’s conclusion about the dimming future of Churches of Christ. Near twenty years ago, Gailyn Van Rheenen and I, both working from a mission perspective honed in Kenya, resigned from our teaching posts at Abilene Christian University and Cascade College. Gailyn formed Mission Alive and I started Kairos Church Planting. We felt an imperative to mobilize within Churches of Christ the urgency and the means to plant a new generation of churches that would be strategically poised to extend the gospel into the twenty-first century.

I believe our fellowship missed the wave we could have caught twenty years ago that might have brought renewal and life-giving energy back into our churches. At that time, our resource base was largely intact, and congregations still exuded a sense of liveliness that was reasonable for unchurched people to explore. I experienced this at the Vancouver Church of Christ where we had an engaging Alpha program that helped unchurched people explore the meaning of faith in Jesus; many were baptized and found a place of belonging at that church.

That is not the situation today. Here in the Pacific Northwest, the region where I grew up and have recently moved back to, there are almost no churches of Christ in Oregon, Washington, or Idaho that are as strong or vibrant as they were thirty years ago. Churches that were once major points of fellowship strength are now small remnant bodies rattling around in shells of buildings too large for their ability to sustain.

Handshake of Unity

The first story is the handshake of unity that occurred on New Year’s Eve, 1831, in Lexington, KY. For four days John Allen Gano and John Rogers of the Stone movement and John T. Johnson and Raccoon John Smith of the Campbell movement conversed about whether their two movements could join in peace and common ground to work together. Finally, on Saturday, December 31, in the Hill Street Church in Lexington, KY, members of both movements gathered to hear Raccoon John Smith speaking for the Campbell churches and Barton Stone on behalf the of the movement he had launched years before.

At the conclusion of their presentations, with tears and trembling hands, Smith and Stone extended to one another the handshake of unity to form what we know as the Restoration Movement. Their guiding principle, elegantly modeled in the life of Barton W. Stone, was to choose unity over division and compassion over conflict. Unfortunately, as Reese demonstrates, this story was largely lost under the driving impulse of Alexander Campbell’s search to restore the ancient order of a divine New Testament church. The idea of unity in diversity succumbed to a demand for uniformity.

I was not raised on the idea of unity, unless it was the unity of people from denominations denouncing their religious convictions in order to become “correct” with us. Separation was more the milk I was nursed on. We were to be separate from the denominations (heaven forbid anyone would lump us in the denominational pile). We were to be separate from the world. We seemed afraid that the earth might shake, and the heavens fall down upon us if we were to put a Christmas tree in our building or celebrate Easter with a sunrise service. Those were denominational trappings and as such, were anathema. Instead, we withdrew from exactly those points where the world had at least opened an eye to Jesus.

This idea of separation was so forceful that it morphed into a sense of uniqueness. If we, as Churches of Christ, were not unique among churches in the world then there was no reason for us to exist. I have heard members of our tribe argue that point as the reason not to do almost anything because some other religious group was doing it. It saddens me that our general reputation is that we are the church that is against, against: orphan’s homes and kitchens in the church, against Christmas and Easter, against music in worship and interacting with other Christian groups. These “againsts” are driven by the theological need to be unique, or maybe exclusive.

Peacemaker and the Pallbearer

The second story Reese chose centers around the funeral of T. B. (Theophilus Brown) Larimore in Santa Ana, CA, March 20, 1929. Larimore, born in 1843, bridged the bloody divide of the War Between the States, the conflict that ultimately divided the Restoration Movement into the Disciples of Christ in the north and the Churches of Christ in the south. Larimore dedicated his life to the propagating of the gospel. Estimates are that in his preaching career he may have baptized more than 10,000 people. His spirit was that of peacemaker. At times, under intense attack to choose a side in one of the boiling debates over mission societies, instrumental music in worship, or the employment of ministers by congregations, Larimore’s response was “I shall simply do as I have always done: ‘love the brethren (p. 97).’”

In distinction to Larimore’s spirit of peacemaking was the hard-driving, acerbic Foy E. Wallace, Jr., a pallbearer at Larimore’s burial. Just thirty-two years of age at the time of Larimore’s funeral, Wallace would become the editor of the Gospel Advocate, a platform from which he shaped the values and attitudes of the 20th century Churches of Christ. Through this editorial megaphone Wallace created a new identity for Churches of Christ, one that was disputatious. The pursuit for biblical truth demonstrated by visible distinctiveness from all denominations was used to validate a hard-fighting, contentious spirit propagated within the movement.

The turning point of Larimore’s funeral was the choice between the inviting presence of T.B. Larimore and the contentious personality of Wallace. Churches of Christ exchanged the peacemaking spirit of Larimore for the hard-fighting impulse of Wallace.

There was a time when our theological certainty gave us clear direction and confidence to address the felt-need concerns and questions of our world. This certainty propelled our forebears to take to the Oregon Trail as church planters. Where, as Jerry Rushford described it in Christians on the Oregon Trail (College Press, 1997), our churches sprouted overnight like mushrooms.

As a youth minister at the East Frayser Church of Christ in Memphis, TN one of the elders took me under his wing. I learned during the three years he mentored me that this unassuming, retired welder had helped start four congregations across the northern tier of Memphis. His was a story repeated often across our nation. Somewhere in my lifetime we abandoned that church planting spirit to our history.

For the fifteen years I directed Kairos Church Planting the most difficult and consistent challenge was the need to persuade church leaders that planting new churches was both a biblical imperative and a practical necessity. It was always a fight.

The word the Kairos staff used to describe our work with established churches was “wooing”. We had to gingerly, cautiously approach elders, ministers and missions committees with how they might become church planting churches. We could never assume church leaders would be positive. We had to woo them forward, dispel their fears of losing of control, and answer the objections of the inward impulses to take care of their home needs. It was a grinding, dispiriting experience.

It typically took three to five years to woo a church into supporting a domestic, church planting missionary. I was conducting a church planting seminar at a church one weekend when I made this statement about how long it took church leaders to decide to help plant a new church. One of the women in the seminar, a member of that church, thought that was an outrageous length of time. She asked how long Kairos had been working with her church—five years. It was seven years before they began to support a church planter.

Quest to Restore the Golden Age

The third story Reese chose occurred in Memphis, TN on September 10, 1973. The meeting was intended to be a conversation among church leaders concerning the theological directions of what perhaps has been the most influential para-church ministry of Churches of Christ, the Herald of Truth. The participants on stage were Lynn Anderson, preaching minister for the Highland Church of Christ in Abilene which sponsored Herald of Truth, Landon Saunders and Batsell Barrett Baxter who were the Herald of Truth’s primary spokespeople, and Harold Hazelip as convener.

The public presentations were to focus on questions of congregational autonomy and how much congregational cooperation was appropriate to support a national ministry like the Herald of Truth. But lurking under the surface were more far-reaching questions about the relationship of Churches of Christ to the denominations and the work of the Holy Spirit, whether the Holy Spirit worked through scripture only or was a personal, empowering independent presence in the life of a Christian.

While the Herald of Truth provided the convening reason for the Memphis meeting, Reese proposes that the deeper issue was that of truth and truthfulness. Since Alexander Campbell, Churches of Christ had identified with a search for a golden age, a restoration of the ancient order of a divine, primitive church. For many in that Memphis meeting, Churches of Christ were the expression of that restored ancient order. Churches of Christ were considered the embodiment of the truth of God in scripture. Once this fellowship’s organization, practices, and polity had reached the point of full restoration, any deviation or change from that “divine” pattern could no longer be or represent truth. Change was heresy.

Where Reese identifies significant turning points in the first two stories, what he offers from this third story is that it did not result in a turning point. There was no sense of resolution. Yes, there were trickles of adjustments about the nature and work of the Holy Spirit, congregational cooperation, and ideas about what a restored church looks like. But overall, Reese identifies a sense of wariness that settled in, increasing the isolation between diverging groups and churches. The Memphis meeting in 1973 could have been a significant turning point. It offered the opportunity for introspection on our movement’s attitudes, behaviors, and values. We missed it.

There is a fatal flaw within a movement whose primary impetus, going so far as making it our named identity, is to be a Restoration Movement. As a student at Harding University and the Graduate School of Religion, the stories of Campbell, Stone, Walter Scott, and others were enthralling. These men were spiritual lights navigating the dark waters of biblical confusion. The idea of restoring a golden age church was a heady brew.

The flaw of being a Restoration Movement is that it keeps our sight focused on what lies behind. It is hard to walk into the future backward. Identifying as a Restoration Movement ties us to a phantom ideal that is near impossible to change. If the ideal church did exist at some point in history, as if let down on a sheet from heaven in full and perfect form, then to make any change is a sin.

One evening I met with four elders from the home church of a young church planter. They had raised, nurtured, and taught this man. He grew up among them. Yet they were refusing not just to financially support him, but even to recognize his work as being part of our fellowship. They agreed that the people he would reach would never come to their church, or a church like theirs. Finally, I asked them if they understood that if this man did not go, people he could have reached might lose their opportunity for salvation and heaven. With tears in their eyes those elders said they understood, but they would rather those people go to hell than for them support a church that would not be just like theirs. Sometimes a golden age perspective is fool’s gold.

Suggestions for A Future

Reese contends that, as a movement and as individual congregations, Churches of Christ have reached a point of consequential choices about our future which we cannot sidestep. Reese also professes that our historical Blue Hole offers us resources for addressing and choosing the path our future will take.

From Reese’s three stories he offers the following six resources from which Churches of Christ might gain direction and draw strength at this current inflection point in our history:

  1. Unity as the wellspring of grace. The desire for unity is a desire for peace. Reese asserts this gift is not gone, but it will be difficult to recover. The beginning of that recovery must be the confession of our sins of pride that have been so hurtful.
  • Restoration and life. In our quest to recreate a biblical golden age the Bible became for us a book of case law rather than the heart address of God to the life of His people—all His people. To let the Bible work in its true form as God’s address to people, couched in the forms and contexts in which it was written, will release its life-giving waters to us again.
  • Reasoned Inquiry. Our fellowship has been characterized almost from its inception by the pursuit of higher education and a commitment to critical inquiry. From this heritage, we should be expected to think and to interact with others in thoughtful discussion. Such discussion should lead to respect for differing opinions.
  • An Ear for Harmony. A cappella singing requires us to listen to the voices around us. Reese thoughtfully says that our a cappella singing is a spiritual discipline rooted in listening, not for the purpose of establishing conformity, but for creating a living harmony of differing voices. This tradition of a cappella worship has the capacity to teach us to live in harmony with others rather than in division.
  • Living Generously. Generosity is the discipline of hospitality in practice. Mercy ministries are intended to bring goodness into the lives of those less fortunate. However, their greatest impact is often within our own hearts as we learn what it means to live compassionately towards others.
  • Apocalypse Now. Reese describes apocalyptic living as living from the vantage point of the end times. To live apocalyptically is to live as God intends, counter-culturally to the forces of a world resisting submission to God. To live apocalyptically is to commit oneself to a life of holiness and opening the door for the Holy Spirit into our midst.

Where Do We Go from Here?

In Blue Hole Reese presents us with an informative and compelling telling of events in our communal past that were significant turning points, points at which our fellowship made choices that changed the trajectory of our history—sometimes for good, sometimes for worse. His challenge to us is to accept that we stand at another of those great turning points. We can continue down our same path, or, as Reese prompts us, we can draw upon the resources of our heritage that provide a reason to hope for a future better than the one we currently face.

One of the characteristics about our fellowship Reese did not address is that we are a movement more comfortable with thinking than doing. I believe our time for reflection and thinking is thirty years behind us. It is time for us to act. There is at least one action that every church can, and must do, if we are to expect any future different than the one we are currently pursuing.

  1. Some churches must close their doors. Today our movement landscape is littered with thousands of churches in the final stage of their life cycle. Their golden days are past. They served their generation well. But they no longer connect or have relevance to the world and communities around them. Many of these churches are hanging on because of our mistaken theological perception that we are “the only right church.” Our golden age, restorationist interpretation forces us to ask, if our Church of Christ closes, where will people go to church? The people around us have already answered. They are not coming to our churches.

Many churches that need to close, refuse that choice, hoping for a heavenly miracle of revival. What they should do is to reflect on their stewardship responsibilities. The question they need to answer is, how will we use the capital of faith God has provided us, the financial resources in our lands and buildings, to promote His good kingdom work? It is sad for a church to close, but it is not a shame. It becomes a shame when a small, remnant group demands the resources God has given them be used to sustain the church of their past until their last member dies and those resources disappear, useless for the kingdom.

Churches that are at the end of their life cycle can and should gift their legacy forward by supporting the planting of new churches, the sending of missionaries, and supporting life-giving churches and ministries that raise the glory of God through their good works. God has already provided Churches of Christ with the resources we need for a good future if church leaders would show courage, transition their churches out of old and too large buildings, and use their capital for the sake of the gospel.

  • Churches that are still healthy and vital must be launch pads for God’s kingdom work. The question they must answer is, will we look beyond ourselves to inspire and support kingdom advancing works?

There is a strong propensity in churches to spend their money on themselves. When a pinch is felt, it is often the mission aspects of the church that are cut first from the budget so that the children’s ministry can be supplied, or a youth minister hired to keep our young ones engaged. Self-service only churns a short time before it curdles into selfishness. The spiritual discipline of generosity must again be accepted as a birthmark of our movement.

  • New churches must be planted. New churches are the Research and Development arm of Christianity. New churches have the ability to creatively engage and adapt to the swirling tides of culture in ways and with speed that established churches cannot. These new churches will be birthed out of the healthy, vital churches of group 2 and could be financed by the forward-looking generosity of churches that close in group 1. Without both groups 1 and 2 contributing to the planting of life rejuvenating new churches, the benefit and gain of these new churches will be lost, and our fellowship will continue to dwindle away.

I am thankful for the work Jack Reese has done for us in At the Blue Hole: Elegy for a Church on the Edge (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2021).

It feels appropriate to end with the words of the Revelator, He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches (Rev. 3:21).

Jack Reese holds degrees from Abilene Christian University, the University of Oklahoma, and the University of Iowa (Ph.D. in theological studies). Reese has co-authored or written: The Crux of the Matter: Crisis, Tradition, and the Future of Churches of Christ: (2002), The Body Broken: Embracing the Peace of Christ in a Fragmented Church (2005), and In Search of Wonder: A Call to Worship Renewal (2010). He has 25 hymns published in Timeless: Ancient Psalms for the Church Today (2011).

By Dr. Stanley E. Granberg

What’s the future of Churches of Christ? The Covid-19 is like a change accelerant on a fire for churches. Covid is causing us to do things that it may have taken us ten more years to do, if at all. Many church leaders are feeling like they’re leading phantom churches; it seems like our members are still “out there,” but what if they aren’t. When we can meet again, who’s going to show up? Churches that felt healthy pre-Covid are having that idea tested. Churches that were not healthy may struggle to survive at all. As much as we hope that by this time next year things will be back to normal—our old normal is forever gone.  

During this fire of change Wineskins asked me to reflect on the state of Churches of Christ, particularly on our mission activity of stateside church planting.  As one of the 21st century pioneers in church planting in our fellowship, I want to take an autobiographical approach to this task that may bring a more nuanced insight and raise some different questions for Wineskins readers.  

For the last fifteen years I’ve led the Kairos Church Planting ministry. My experience includes involvement with hundreds of churches in our fellowship coast to coast and acquaintance with many of our thought leaders. Kairos has worked with hundreds of people involved with starting new churches across our country, from lead church planters to brand new Christian believers. This firsthand experience provides a unique viewing platform I think you will find both interesting and informative.

Beginnings: 2003 to 2010 

My journey into domestic church planting was very unplanned. In 2004 I was teaching Bible at Cascade College in Portland, Oregon. Cascade was a very small, regional college that catered primarily to students who came from small Churches of Christ dotted across the Pacific Northwest landscape. Over and over again I had students come into my office, often in tears, with two ideas on their hearts. First, they really loved and respected their home churches and the faith their parents reflected. But second, they were not going to go back to those churches for their spiritual nourishment. I was troubled. 

In October 2002 the Crossroads Christian Church in Portland hosted a Restoration Unity Forum meeting. Our family friend, Marvin Philips, was speaking and I had time to catch Marvin and the session before his. In this session I was completely intrigued by Dean Pense’s presentation on the church planting the Christian Churches were doing in California via the Northern California Evangelistic Association (NCEA). They were using a system of recruiting, assessing and training entrepreneurial church start-up leaders that was very successful for them. From my mission training and experience in Kenya it made great sense. I struck up a friendship with Dean that led to invitations in 2003 and 2004 to join their NCEA team in assessing and training events, seeing the launch of Our Place Christian Church in Portland, and being part of their first training workshop for leaders of church planting ministries. The NCEA staff, led by Marcus Bigelow with Roger Gibson, Phil Claycomb, and Dan Slate were gracious hosts, knowledgeable trainers and friends. 

In 2004 my wife and partner Gena and I took five couples from Washington, Oregon and British Columbia to an NCEA planter bootcamp. Also at the training were Jimmy Adcox and Larry Deal from the Southwest Church of Christ in Jonesboro, AR. They were a church looking for a new dream; Gena and I were a couple being called by God for a dream wondering how to make it happen. God had worked ahead of us all for years to bring us together at just the right time.  

In June 2004 the Southwest church, in an amazing act of faith, committed a million dollars from a capital campaign to fund the start of Kairos in January 2005. I resigned from my tenured faculty position at Cascade and Gena and I launched Kairos Church Planting. Scott and Kim Lambert joined us a few months later, Scott resigning from his role as campus minister at Pepperdine University. Our purpose was to help reignite a church planting movement in the US originating from Churches of Christ. 

Our first major Kairos event was the St. Louis Summit in the summer of 2005. We invited the church researcher and author Dr. Thom Rainer as a guest presenter and gathered over seventy leading preachers and influencers from across our fellowship for a three-day gathering to ask the question, “Can Churches of Christ successfully plant new churches?” We really did not know. It had been a generation since our fellowship had planted churches with any sort of regularity or intentionality. Did our fellowship still have the entrepreneurial leaders needed to start new congregations? Would the existing churches see the planting of a new generation of churches a valid and needed mission? Would a sufficient number of existing churches create a synergizing center that would generate the vision, the commitment and the experience to mobilize enough of our then 13,000 congregations to launch a church planting movement?  

From 2004 to 2010 Kairos assessed over 100 leaders in five-day Discovery (assessment) and Strategy Labs (training). To encourage involvement among leading churches in our fellowship and to expose those churches to church planting we strategically held our Strategy Labs in host congregations in different parts of the country: Cascade College in Oregon, Vancouver Church of Christ in Washington, Durham in North Carolina, Harpeth Hills and Brentwood Hills in Nashville, Pleasant Valley in Little Rock and the Conejo and Simi Valley churches in the Los Angeles area. We trained 103 people for 19 new church projects, like Renovatus in Washington, Cascade Hills, Soma and Agape in Oregon, Way of Life Village and South County in California, Ethos in Nashville, Kainos in Pennsylvania, Gateway in New Jersey, Bridgeway in Maryland and missionaries for Angola, Panama, Australia and Guatemala. 

During those years Kairos in the Northwest and Mission Alive in Texas both experimented, learned and developed resources that church planting leaders could use to fulfill their God-given calls to plant new congregations. By 2010 we had answered the question, “Can Churches of Christ plant new churches?” Absolutely yes! Our fellowship could raise up, train and deploy start-up church leaders who were evangelistically reaching new people across our nation. 

The planters that chose to work with Kairos mostly had backgrounds in the Churches of Christ. They held a deep respect for our fellowship along with an objective understanding of our strengths and weaknesses. They were not mad at our fellowship (we spoke with many younger leaders who were mad, they chose to work with other fellowships) nor were they disenchanted. Like us, they were hopeful our churches, their churches, the churches they often grew up in and had worked for as ministers, would catch the dream, welcome the opportunity, and partner with them to reach more of God’s people. 

We worked hard to develop those partnerships with congregations. Our thinking was if enough regionally influential churches got the vision for church planting, they would be able to bring other churches to the work and a movement would arise. Kairos asked planters to work under the elderships of partnering churches. We worked with them to find these churches, cast their vision, and asked these churches to partner with these planters as domestic missionaries. It was hard. Most churches had not heard of church planting at that time. There was suspicion that these were church splits in disguise or that the planters were simply young bucks wanting to do things they couldn’t do in the existing churches. Yet despite the unknowns, over seventy-five established congregations did step up and we saw some amazing work of God in those new churches. 

Midstream: 2011 to 2020 

By 2011 we knew Churches of Christ could plant new churches. We began to ask a new question, “Would the Churches of Christ do this?” By this time the Kairos team had grown to three full-time and three part-time people. We were energized and awed by the work done by the planters we were blessed to work with. Still, it had been a hard road with our existing churches. No matter what we tried the typical responses we and planters received from those by now less than 12,000 existing churches were apathy, resistance or hostility. 

With this new question in mind—and some bewilderment as to why our fellowship would be apathetic, resistant or hostile towards the idea of reaching new people for Jesus in new churches—the Kairos team invited a small group of our fellowships’ leading influencers to the Hoover Institute on the campus of Stanford University for what we called the Hoover Summit. Randy Lowry, president of Lipscomb University, led this group of university presidents and teachers, business entrepreneurs, and political and social leaders to investigate the purpose, processes and results of our Kairos work and the responses we were encountering from our fellowship. 

For three days we investigated, asked questions, worked in focus groups to look at specific areas in question. In our final session, after compiling the insights of these brilliant people, Mike O’Neal, then president of Oklahoma Christian University, summed up the answer to our question, “Would the Churches of Christ step up to plant a new generation of churches in the US for the twenty-first century?” Mike’s answer, given with a heavy sigh, was, “It will be very hard.” 

Where are we now? 

From 2004 to 2020 Kairos assessed 212 leaders (couples and individuals) for church planting, trained over 230 individuals for new church leadership, and helped resource hundreds of existing churches through seminars, workshops, lectureships and strategy training. One goal we had was to mobilize one percent of our existing churches into supporting church planting. By 2020 over 160 congregations (1.3% of 12,000 congregations) had made financial commitments to new churches through Kairos. 

When I look back at these fifteen years our fellowship has certainly made progress. Today there are several hundred congregations that have engaged in planting new churches through Kairos, Mission Alive, some university-based initiatives or on their own initiative. When Kairos began in 2005, most churches had never heard of church planting. Today, most church leaders in our fellowship have at least heard of or have been exposed to new churches, if not from Churches of Christ, they have seen new churches growing up around them, sometimes exploding with growth. 

In 2005 my recruiting conversations with ministers, youth ministers, and graduate students in Churches of Christ began with an explanation of what in the world did I mean by church planting. There were no classes taught on church planting, let alone specialized degrees, in the Bible departments of any of our Christian universities or colleges. I taught the first church planting course at Harding School of Theology. Gailyn Van Rheenen added church planting to Abilene Christian University’s offerings before he left his tenured professorship to begin Mission Alive. Today, most of our schools at least have a domestic church planting course or two and Harding University now has an endowed chair for church planting.

Today we have processes and training that developed through the hard work of Kairos, Mission Alive and others within our fellowship. Today we have examples of successful new churches like Ethos in Nashville, The Vine in Kennewick, Washington and The Feast in Providence, Rhode Island. Today young leaders have role models to follow that didn’t exist fifteen years ago. 

Yet despite these advances, Churches of Christ have not yet responded in a significant way to God’s call to plant a new generation of churches. For the rest of this article I will give some perspective for this lack of significant response and provide some possible avenues Churches of Christ can pursue for the future. 

Earlier I said that the responses we have typically received from our now 10,000 or so existing congregations have been apathy, hostility or resistance. Let me elaborate some on each of these responses.

Churches that met our overtures with apathy were a minority. When I say apathy I am talking about their response to Kairos, not their response to God’s work. Actually, these churches were often quite active, but active in ways that made them apathetic towards the Kairos’ mission. These churches tended to fall into two categories. The first category are those I would call cutting edge planting churches. These congregations wanted to plant churches, but they had already decided to partner outside the fellowship of Churches of Christ.

Most looked towards the Christian Churches who have had dynamic expressions of church planting through their fifty or so state or regional evangelistic associations (the best known of which is Stadia, which was originally the Northern California Evangelistic Association), the Exponential Church Planting conference, and influential local churches that have inspired and resourced church planting (such as East 91stStreet Christian Church in Indianapolis and Community Christian in Chicago). Others looked to networks outside the Restoration Movement, such as ARC (the Association of Related Churches), North Point, and Acts 29.  

These churches looked outside our fellowship for networks that gave them more recognition and resources. These churches saw a partnership with Kairos as a step backwards in their progression towards something else. Sometimes they exhibited the big church syndrome. Because they were successful, they sometimes felt they did not need help; they could replicate new churches using the methods they had successfully employed. Those efforts most often did not replicate well. 

The second category of churches in the apathy response were those who had decided to prioritize a specific issue. The three typical issues were social justice, gender inclusiveness and instrumental music. These churches had already committed their attention and resources to these issues. Adding church planting didn’t make sense to them as a mission because it did not advance their particular focus. One such church whose focus was social justice said to me, “If you were Catholic, Methodist or almost any group other than Church of Christ, we might be interested.” Sometimes the mere fact we maintained connection with Churches of Christ was reason to not partner with us. 

The next largest group were those who met us with hostility. This group often identified themselves as “defenders of the faith.” These churches attacked anything that did not look, sound or feel like them. They saw the new churches as threats to their accepted standards of practice.  

Leaders in these hostile churches actively worked against church planters. One of the saddest experiences I ever had was sitting with the elders of one such church talking about a planter who had grown up in their church. This planter had asked them to join with him and his wife as financial and spiritual partners to go to a highly unchurched area in the same general region. We talked through what this planter was proposing. These elders acknowledged that the people the planter was focusing on would never come to their church, that this young man was well equipped for this task and that they loved him as one of their own. We also recognized that the church he was envisioning was not going to look or practice exactly like theirs. Finally, one elder, with tears in his eyes, said, “We know these people are lost and we know that this young man will probably be able to reach some of them. But we would rather those people go to hell than support this young man because he will not do church like us.” The point at issue was instrumental music. 

The majority of churches responded to our church planting work with resistance. Where the hostile churches actively opposed the new churches, the resistant churches were simply not going to support, recognize or encourage planters or their new churches. Sometimes this was out of fear that some of their people would end up going to the new church (our experience is that very few long-time church people find a home in a new church). Other times the perceived lack of control they would have over the new churches was what they resisted. Most of the time, though, their resistance arose out of the thought that “this really doesn’t concern us.” Their plates were already full. Involvement in church planting was going to take people, money, or time that they were not willing to give for an outcome they would not be able to control.  

On the surface these resistant churches were polite and well-wishing, but they were never going to provide any support, nor would they encourage any other congregations to provide any support or encouragement. Our experience has been that the most encouraging churches to our planters have (and I’ll make a big value judgment here) always been churches that were not associated with Churches of Christ. 

Planters struggled with this lack of acceptance and support from the people they knew, loved and respected. Sometimes, like a planter couple in the upper Midwest who was rejected by every Church of Christ both he and his wife had grown up knowing, this lack of acceptance pushed them to other religious fellowships for support. Sometimes this lack of support contributed to the closing of the new church and the loss of that new kingdom lighthouse. Most times the planters simply chose to grit their teeth, try to maintain connection, and do what God had called and prepared them to do the best they could. Can I say it again? Church planting in our fellowship is hard. 

A Look to the Future 

When I look to the future it is with uncertain clarity. These past fifteen years have, however, given some perspective.  

First, what do Churches of Christ bring to the church planting table? When I look over our Church of Christ fellowship, I see three incredible gifts that we bring to God’s great kingdom work for planting new churches. 

The first of these gifts is an amazing system of Christian education. The pursuit of Christian based education through our schools and universities is a hallmark of our fellowship. These schools have provided us with gifted, committed church leaders. Our schools have been fertile and fruitful providers of strong Christians who have settled around the globe for the cause of Christ. For the future, we do need to change the model of church minister our schools are producing. For at least the last fifty years we have produced pastoral ministers who, typically, feel most comfortable in their study and presenting thoughtful, Bible-based lessons. What we need are action-oriented ministers who use their strong, biblical education to address the deep cultural challenges of our rapidly changing world. 

Second, we have an almost unique relationship with scripture in the Christian world. From my observations during my years on the mission field in Kenya, then in the domestic mission field, I state it this way:  

We are a people who desperately desire to obey the God of the Word and who implicitly trust the Word of God to creatively engage the World of God. 

At our best it is hard to imagine a more powerful platform from which to work. In our darker moments the pursuit of ecclesial purity based on the case law approach of command, example or necessary inference has let us feel justified in shaving off our fellowship those who did not practice church just like us. In the realm of church planting that dividing line was most often over a cappella or instrumental worship. We might retain a cappella worship as a helpful practice for spiritual development, but not to hold it as a theological imperative for fellowship. 

Finally, God has blessed our fellowship with an incredible wealth of resources. From our inception in the 19th century we have been a pioneer movement. In less than 100 years the movement stretched coast to coast and was counted as one of the major American Christian movements. This spread created an amazing network of cooperation for many years, where brother helped brother and church helped church. 

This resource blessing is also counted in dollars. Churches of Christ hold billions of dollars of assets in the lands and buildings of our existing churches. Financial gurus say that the largest exchange of wealth the world has ever seen will happen in the next ten to twenty years as the Boomer generation retires, then passes on. It is entirely possible that we will see the same happen among churches. Most congregations have a lifespan about the same as a person, seventy to one hundred years. Today, most congregations in Churches of Christ are at that age. We have already seen almost 3,000 congregations close their doors in the last twenty years. We can expect to see many, many more churches close. Our question, then, is not will churches close, but what will closing churches do with their God-given resources? Will at least a portion of that money be used to seed a new generation of churches or will it be used for what may be good works, but not reproductive for the kingdom of God. 

For better or worse, it is our generation that gets to decide the trajectory of our fellowship’s future. 

As I reflect on these past fifteen years, I am thankful to have had the opportunity to step into the challenge God set before me years ago. I am thankful for those hundreds of churches and hundreds of men and women who responded to that same call. Churches of Christ today are aware of church planting today in ways they were not fifteen years. I believe that Kairos was a major contributor to this shift.  

What is the future of the Churches of Christ? Is it too late? Have we begun an inexorable decline like many other groups around us? Perhaps. We live in a completely different kind of world than the one most of our existing churches were planted in. After 15 years of seeking to engage our fellowship in a significant way in the mission of God with the planting of new churches as one measurable result, I have to agree with the conclusion of the Hoover Summit: it will be hard.

Dr. Stanley E. Granberg
sgranberg@kairoschurchplanting.org
360-609-6700

A disturbing prospect looms before us as the fact of our decline of Churches of Christ (CoC) has moved from unbelievable to undeniable. The question we must answer is no longer, “How are we doing;” our question is now, “What shall we do about it?”

Last year I published an article describing the decline of CoC in the Great Commission Research Journal (Fall 2018).[1] This year, Tim Woodroof and I wrote a paper that looks into the crystal ball of the possible future of CoC in 2050[2]. At the present, the best analysis is that each month six CoC congregations close their doors. Given the current trends, we expect that rate to double—or even triple—before we arrive at 2050. If this does occur, we could see the fellowship of CoC drop from just over 12,000 churches to under 3,000.

There are several responses leaders in our fellowship have made to our challenge of decline. Some say its time to leave and join forces in a broader, more ecumenical fellowship, advancing the unity plea of our heritage. Others are hanging onto the ways and traditions of the past for dear life, leaning into the restoration roots of our fellowship. The majority of church leaders are struggling to find some way forward that satisfies both the desire of their members for the safety of what we have been in the past and the need to present a relevant Christianity to our increasingly unbelieving world.

For the past fifteen years, as the executive director of Kairos Church Planting, I have worked extensively within Churches of Christ, promoting, calling and pleading with churches to engage the future through the planting of new congregations. From this perspective, I present here three hard challenges I believe we must address to set a foundation for our future and three bold strategies that could change the course of our future.

Hard Challenges

The following three challenges are hard because they are deeply embedded, DNA level aspects of CofC that seem to hold us back, even cripple us, from engaging 21st century America, confident that we can be useful ambassadors, harvesting new souls for the kingdom of God.

Challenge #1: reorient our hermeneutic from a closed to an open perspective. The CofC through the 20th century have practiced a case law hermeneutic described under the rubric: Command, Example, and Necessary Inference.[3] While “thus saith the Lord” is an appropriate operating principle, we have added a subtext that says, “what is not addressed is not allowed.” Our case law hermeneutic requires explicit permission to do something. Without explicit biblical command, example or necessary inference we are forbidden to do anything different, a situation that keeps us stuck within our own past.

To change our course of decline in the 21st century we must explore the other side of this hermeneutic coin, the side of freedom and openness. On this other side, unless something is expressly forbidden, we are free to explore it based upon biblical principles. This hermeneutic approach is based upon a narrative-historical interpretation of scripture, most readily expressed in our faith stream through the writings of John Mark Hicks. This is part of our faith heritage. Our cousins, the Christian Churches and Churches of Christ, operate with this open hermeneutic. On the mission field of Kenya, I discovered that, at our best, CofC are a fellowship that deeply desires to obey the God of the Word, implicitly trusting the Word of God to guide us to creatively engage the world of God. We are at our best when we live out of this open hermeneutic perspective.

Challenge #2: restore apostolic leaders as part of our leadership system. For a non-centralized, non-denominational fellowship, CofC have a strongly held congregational leadership system. In our most traditional form, a congregation is led by a committee of elders with deacons and teachers as permanent workers. Pastoral staff are hired to work under the oversight of the elders, who can also fire on any pretense or personal discretion. This structure creates a maintenance orientation designed to keep the system stable. This maintenance, stability-oriented leadership system is not capable of creating or releasing the innovative, growth producing activity necessary to change our decline trajectory. We must adopt the Ephesians 4:11 understanding that restores the full circle of biblical leadership.[4] This will mean a recognition of the personal leadership giftedness God provides the church.

Challenge #3: enliven the experience of God among us. CofC have typically been a heady, intellectually oriented movement. Both our places and practices of worship are designed to strip out emotional content and symbolism. The rule of “decently and in order” (1 Cor. 14:40) has been used to emphasize hearing the word of God to the neglect of experiencing the presence of God. Creating a worship experience that recognizes the power of the human senses as vehicles through which God makes himself present challenges our rejection of anything that smacks of the danger of entertainment. If we expect “not-yet” believers to find anything of worth in the sacramental event of our gathering together, the experience of God must become our new scorecard of our worship. When God shows up, lives will never be the same.

Bold Plans

History and research have proven true C. Peter Wagner’s assertion, “Planting new churches is the most effective evangelistic methodology known under heaven.”[5] Timothy Keller further expands Wagner’s view about church planting,

The vigorous, continual planting of new congregations is the single most crucial strategy for (1) the numerical growth of the body of Christ in a city and (2) the continual corporate renewal and revival of the existing churches in a city. Nothing else—not crusades, outreach programs, parachurch ministries, growing megachurches, congregational consulting, nor church renewal processes—will have the consistent impact of dynamic, extensive church planting.[6]

If CofC expect to make a reversal from decline to growth, church planting must be our core strategic activity. Given this fact, the following three bold strategies would, from my perspective, provide the most immediate leverage to accomplishing kingdom expansion through our fellowship and congregational renewal within our churches.

Strategy #1: deliberately close older, declining churches to repurpose the resources from their lands and buildings for the planting of new churches. CofC can expect to see as many as 8,000 congregations, two-thirds of our total number, close in the next thirty years. If the average real estate revenue were just $350,000 per church (a very conservative amount), these closings would produce $2.8 billion. Investing half of that into new churches, supporting each new church with $250,000, would result in 5,600 new churches. God has already provided us the financial endowment we need to reinvest into our future! Most Christian fellowships and denominations already fund much of their church planting through such repurposing efforts.[7] As a step to accomplish this strategy, the Heritage 21 Foundation (Heritage21.org) was founded in 2016, “To partner with declining churches to help them faithfully preserve and repurpose their resources for new kingdom work.”[8]

Strategy #2: develop an apprentice leadership system to train next generation leaders to plant new churches and missionally lead existing churches. Experience in healthy, growing churches is the most predictive factor for successful church planters. We need to create a pipeline for missional leaders through apprenticeships in our healthiest churches. If our top one hundred churches would keep four apprentices in training on a two-year rotating basis, graduating two apprentices each year, in twenty-five years we would produce five thousand experienced, missional leaders. The Southwest Church of Christ in Jonesboro, Arkansas has trained apprentices within the church and its associated campus ministry which have resulted in those apprentices moving to Boston, Phoenix and Seattle to start new churches and campus ministries. A backbone of resources for apprentices called Emerging Leader Training has already been developed by Kairos Church Planting.[9]

Strategy #3: work together in regional network relationships to plant new churches. The Christian Churches and Churches of Christ effectively practice this network strategy through over fifty evangelistic associations across the United States. If CofC would work together in networks of four to six congregations, these networks could pool resources, provide a new church nucleus from members, and receive the benefits of learning how a new church engages its community. Such networks would create pockets of regional church planting.

The fact is we are at a crossroads between decline and advancement. Our generation, those of us who currently sit as elders within our churches or stand as preachers in our pulpits, have one, vital question to answer: What will we do with the inheritance which God has given us? We have been gifted with a valid spiritual heritage, a storehouse of financial resources and spiritually endowed leaders to use for His great purposes. While we could debate the need of God’s kingdom for a continuation of the entity we know as Churches of Christ, I believe God has invested Himself deeply in us. I would rather stand before God’s judgment throne having used well these talents God has given us rather than burying them in extinction.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.


[1] Stanley E. Granberg, “A Case Study of Growth and Decline: The Churches of Christ, 2006-2016,” Great Commission Research Journal, vol. 10, no. 1 (Fall 2018), 88-111.

[2] Tim Woodroof and Stanley E. Granberg. “Churches of Christ: Losing Our Hope, Seeking a Future”. Available to read at http://www.kairoschurchplanting.org/cocstudy2019.html, 2019.

[3] Williams, Stone-Campbell Movement, 159.

[4] This idea of APEST leadership from Ephesians 4:11 is thoughtfully engaged by Alan Hirsch, http://www.alanhirsch.org/books. A circle model of leadership that has strong research support is described by Stanley E. Granberg, “Circle of biblical leadership,” Kairos Church Planting, August 31, 2011, accessed May 29, 2017, http://kairoschurchplanting.blogspot.com/ 2011/08/circle-of-biblical-leadership.html.

[5] C. Peter Wagner, Strategies for Growth: Tools for Effective Missions and Evangelism (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 1987), 168.

[6] Timothy Keller, “Why plant churches?” Redeemer.com, 2009, accessed May 29, 2017, http://download. redeemer.com/pdf/learn/resources/Why_Plant_Churches-Keller.pdf.

[7] Olsen, American Church, 126.

[8] Heritage 21, https://www.Heritage21.org.

[9] Stanley E. Granberg, Spiritual Formation (CreateSpace, 2015) and Sharing Faith (CreateSpace, 2015).